(Editor's Note: The following piece, penned by Lisa McCormack, details an infamous run in between Rahm Emanuel and Democratic pollster Alan Secrest. It ran in the June/July 1990 issue of Campaigns & Elections magazine. Secrest is closing the doors of his firm after nearly 30 years in business.)
Rarely is anyone the master of both numbers and letters. The name-sake numbers-cruncher of the Democratic polling firm Cooper & Secrest Associates, Inc. is no exception.
When typed on keys burning with righteous indignation -- real or imagined -- an Alan Secrest missive is a heat-seeker fired from a mailbox launch pad. Misfired however, it’s a lethal boomerang. Still smarting from the backfire of one letter that blew up in his face. Secrest, even his friends say, should not be allowed within 100 feet of a post office.
The Letter -- as it is referred to by everyone, including its author -- has become a minor footnote to campaign folklore, and a major albatross around Secret’s neck. All his detractors have to do to initiate a case against him his ask, “Have you read The Letter?” And many of them are only too happy to supply you with a copy.
“I’m not proud of it,” Secrest says, doing his best to keep from seeming at all irked that The Letter has resurfaced—for the first time in print- a year-and-a-half after he wrote it. “I stand by what I said, but I wish I hadn’t said it.”
The Letter accused Rahm Emanuel, the outgoing field director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in December 1988, of attempting to tilt the political playing field in favor of certain pollsters. The most damming charge was that Emanuel had asked CSA to “dupe” or falsify the numbers of Dave Swart’s final poll in his unsuccessful campaign against Republican Bill Paxon in New York’s 31st District.
Shortly before The Letter, Emanuel had sent Secrest a rotting fish.
“If that letter came across my desk, I would have looked into the part about Buffalo. There’s a lot of hard feelings about that race in the region -- why we didn’t win it, how we could have won it and how we lost it,” says Doug Sosnick, current DCCC political director. “The polling is a factor in that discussion, and I don’t know what the resolution is.”
“I am sorry the letter was written. It was not unnecessary,” Sosnik adds. “I think Rahm Emanuel did an outstanding job here last cycle. We picked up three Democratic seats in a presidential election year in which a Republican had a landslide. The numbers speak for themselves.”
“If you take a look at what we’ve accomplished over the years for challengers, for Democratic primary candidates, for open-seat candidates and for incumbents, it more than counterbalances the transitory eruptions of a personality spat,” says Secrest. “It’s just incredible to me the weight that observers place on this incident.”
Both the fish (accompanied by a handwritten note that said, “It’s been awful working with you. Love, Rahm”) and The Letter reeked of the sort of pettiness and vindictive anger each man had shown the other on and off throughout the 1988 cycle.
Unlike a letter, however, a fish, especially one already in an advanced state of decomposition, eventually disappears. Secrest learned the difference a little too late. Emanuel admits sending copies of The Letter to those he felt would appreciate its full bouquet.
Secrest professes to hold no grudge about The Letter’s wide distribution. “I have recommended that firm [The Research Group in Chicago, where Emanuel now works]. I will recommend that firm. I, in fact, recommended that firm this week. I’m interested in winning races. I’m not interested in personal vendettas.”
Emanuel, who confirms that Secrest has recommended the firm initially refused to be interviewed about The Letter until “I decide how I want to play this.” A couple of weeks later, he decided.
In a rush of words and emotions, Emanuel leaves no question as to how he wants to play it: “this notion that it’s a professorial cloister of numbers-crunchers that are out to change the world, and if some money comes their way so much the better, is nonsense. This is a business as competitive as Nike versus Reebok. I have done battle with him. I will continue to do battle with him. He is rude and obnoxious. Why incur another six months of backstabbing? Why wake up a bull in a china shop?”
Though the general attitude of those interviewed seemed to be that the two men deserved each other, those who had grudges against Secrest gleefully used the letter to their advantage. Rumors began to circulate of other air-mailed misfires. Tom King was said to have been a target; Pamela Harriman too.
King, a former DCCC executive director now with Fenn & King, says, contrary to popular belief, Secrest never wrote him an Emanuel-like letter. And the Harriman rumor -- that Secrest wrote her a nasty note after her Democrats for the Nineties, a.k.a. PAMPAC, did not choose CSA as one of the eight firms plucked from a field of 26 to be involved in the National Polling Project -- can’t be confirmed either.
Says Janet Howard, PAMPAC’s deputy director, “People are jealous of each other in this town and spread rumors. If you want to write an honest report, you’ll have to say the rumor isn’t true. He never sent a nasty letter. Trust me, I’d know if it were true. I hear all the bad news.”
“I think his biggest weakness is some of the perceptions created by The Letter,” says David Heller, who worked for Cooper & Secrest as a senior analyst when it was written, and who currently works for CSA client AMPAC, the political arm of the American Medical Association.
“Did he show bad judgment on that letter? Shit, of course he did. I told him so,” says King. “Alan can be a pain in the ass, but so can I. Alan is Alan: a bright, articulate, energetic guy who doesn’t sugarcoat it. He’s refreshing in that sense. He tells it like it is. Some people say I’m aggressive, but frankly, I haven’t seen too many shrinking violets in this business.”
Secrest, while many things to many people, is no shrinking violet. He claims that his firm, which he bought from David Cooper in 1984, has never lost an incumbent's race; helped 84 percent of its clients win their contested Democratic primaries; serves more Democratic clients in offices ranging from county executive to U.S. senator than any other firm in the nation. A CSA proposal boasts, “No firm in either party has defeated more Republican incumbents than Cooper & Secrest since 1984, the year I took over as president.”
The firms specialty, says Secrest, is converting seats vacated by Republicans to Democratic hands. Since’84, Secrest claims 45 percent of open House seats vacated by Republicans and ultimately won by Democrats have been won by CSA clients. Secrest loves longshot races, and nobody denies that he knows his business, and his methodology is solid.
“He has an expertise in congressional and statewide polls, and analytically he’s pretty good,” says Mark Gersh, director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress. At one time NCES endorsed candidates represented almost half of CSA’s clientele, and NCES subsidized their polls.
“I think his numbers are reasonably accurate. He can write rather well. He can give advice rather unequivocally, and that’s what he should do,” Gersh says.
“Secrest provides quality work at a fair price,” says Sosnik. “He brings a lot of experience from congressional races run in different regions of the country -- incumbents in marginal seats, challengers, and open seats -- different flavors of races. That speaks a lot.”
“He is an extremely competent and insightful political analyst in the sense that he can look at polling numbers and come up with actionable ideas for candidates and campaigns,” says Steve Craig, an associate professor at the University of Florida in charge of Gainesville campus’ masters degree programs awarding certificates in political campaigns. Craig worked at CSA for two months earlier this year as a senior analyst.
“Within the limits any political pollster faces -- the short time schedule and limited funds -- I think Alan’s methodology is pretty good. He’s much less successful in managing people,” Craig adds, noting that his personal relationship with Secrest was less satisfying. “If he can learn every step of the way, then he could be very successful in the long run, and I would think, much happier.”
Craig is the tip of the iceberg, albeit about the only one of Secret’s peers who is not afraid to stand behind both his respect for polls and a cold assessment of the pollster.
“Among other pollsters,” says one who is relatively new to the field, “there are little resentments, personality quirks, big egos. But only Alan badmouths colleagues. And he does it gratuitously, even in noncompetitive situations such as casual conversations.”
Media consultant Saul Shorr, who admits getting “grief” from others because of his friendship with Secrest, agrees that his friend has the meanest, baddest mouth in the business. “He’s very tough at the pitching stage. Whereas most pollsters plant the seed of contrast between themselves and their closest competitors, Alan plants it, seeds it, waters it and watches it grow.”
“All of us plant a seed,” snaps another consultant. “The difference is, Alan tries to dump fertilizer on competition.”
“I have been around the block. I’ve worked with every consultant, pollster, fundraiser -- you name it. Never in my years have I been treated the way I have been with Alan,” says former Democratic Party official. “I don’t know why it is, but I do know that I’m not alone.”
“He’s gone out of his way to criticize behind my back, in front of my face and to my clients,” says fellow pollster who declined an in-depth interview on Secrest describing the topic as “distasteful.”
A seasoned pollster, who says he long ago realized the importance of longterm friendships and harmonious working relationships in the imperfect marketplace of political polling, explains: “Alan has burned so many bridges, both institutionally and individually, that in many places he’s at a disadvantage.”
The point is not wasted on another pollster, namely, Secrest, who today says, “it’s doesn’t pay off. I think I’ve made my mistakes along the way. I’m learning. Once burned, twice shy.
“I do plead guilty to aggressive marketing. Sometimes that means comparative marketing. But we have to be more careful. I’ve taken my medicine and learned my lesson.” He leans over and offers an outstretched hand and oversized grin.
Obviously the man thinks an apology is in order. Indeed, it could be the main reason he agreed to an interview that confronts The Letter. But do his colleagues and competitors accept it?
“I think he made a marked determination to be more congenial. I think his mea culpa is as studied as his aggressiveness. I think there’s no way to distinguish it,” says a twice-burned pollster who thinks that Secrest takes things far too personally.
“I don’t think his aggressiveness is studied at all,” says another. “It’s instinctive. I suspect this mea culpa is studied, unless he’s changed in the last few months.”
But one media consultant –– who says peer pressure prevents him from saying for attribution that he believes Secrest has matured since 1988 –– accepts the apology as genuine.
“If I say that, everyone is going to say, ‘You’re an idiot for saying anything nice about the guy.’ But I think that after ’88, when he went to people to rally support after The Letter, he woke up, looked around and realized, ‘I don’t have a fucking friend in town.’”
At the start of the ’88 cycle, Secrest says he saw a fiercely competitive playing field. “There was a feeding frenzy among firms to get clients in the ’88 political cycle. You had a lot of new, frustrated polling firms scrambling for the leftovers,” he says. “It was a question of supply and demand. The marketplace had changed. I think we were among the firms that realized the changing marketplace and changed along with it.
“The only analogy,” Secrest says of the ’88 cycle, “is that you’re on a peaceful transatlantic flight and suddenly you’re seeing flak flying about. All of a sudden, the dialogue changed.”
The perception shared by many of his competitors is that CSA was starting to feel the heat more sharply because its contract with NCEC was about to be terminated. That contract, which since 1982 had been renewed for three consecutive cycles, provided for in-kind contributions to CSA clients whom NCEC endorsed. By 1988, 45 percent of the firm’s business was with NCEC candidates, according to Secrest.
Secrest insists that after 1988, when NCEC decided to disband its polling program in favor of targeting, it took with it only the institutional umbrella of security it had provided, not almost half of CSA’s income.
“It’s just wrong to say that NCEC had this collection of candidates that it brought to CSA and took away when they changed their program,” Secrest says. “We brought clients to them, too.”
Nonetheless, Secret found himself facing rumors that CSA was taking on work for cost, or worse, for free, to keep pace with the growing competition. Word was that the frustration of confronting what he thought was a biased DCCC –– without the NCEC relationship –– had caused him to snap, and his fellow sharks smelled blood.
Feeling under attack, Secrest –– who argues that he is at least as instinctively aggressive as sharks and mother bears –– fought back hard. That, he concedes, is one way to build a reputation.
“Did we go to a discount operation? No. There’s more to it than that,” Secrest explains.
“For a variety of reasons –– races being underfunded, for example –– in our association with NCEC or the Democratic Study Group we have made available to congressional candidates a varied price structure. Right now we have a relationship with AMPAC. They pay for a benchmark and contribute it to the campaign. That’s why that perception has emerged over the years. What we have done for some NCEC-type clients –– i.e., challengers who typically are underfunded, maybe a progressive incumbent that might have worked with NCEC before –– is to offer a Tier B price scheme that saves them a little bit compared to what they would pay. It costs more than [under the contract with] NCEC, but it’s not full freight. I don’t know what other pollsters do, but I think you have to be flexible in your pricing or you go out of business.
“Another thing we do from time to time is we’ll do a project for close to cost –– an individual poll, not a full campaign –– and the rationale is that it’s good for business,” Secrest says. “I’m talking about something that helps someone get over a rough spot. We offered our services to [Seattle Mayor] Norm Rice, a former congressional candidate of ours. It’s certainly something clients appreciate.”
While reluctant to pronounce the patient cured, most agree that today’s Secrest has mellowed.
The mythology of Secrest the Aggressor, however, persists. George Burger, of the general consulting firm of Burger & Lunde, says he dreaded the prospect of working with him this year.
“From what I heard, I was prepared not to like him. I expected someone who would be terse and short and all business. And I found someone who was generally a nice guy. Maybe I’m the exception, maybe I’m the rule.”
Less than a minute later, Burger adds, “But you should know I’m the type of person who would never speak ill of a person even if I hated them because it never does you any good.”
A couple of more minutes later, Burger adds, “Winning is the only thing to these guys. Generally, it’s collegial but prickly. I have never experienced Alan negative-selling his competition.”
“It’s like it is with a doctor. Do you want someone with a good bedside manner or do you want someone who’s highly competent?” says Riley Grimes, administrative assistant to Secrest client Rep. Dave Nagle (D-IA). “Alan doesn’t inject his services by handholding or ego building. He’s pure doctor. He doesn’t come in and micromanage the organization. He doesn’t pander to the candidates; I think there’s a great temptation among other pollsters to do that. He basically lets the product speak for itself.”
“When he gives you information, it’s not like it’s coming out of a can. It’s a precise presentation with thoroughly explained numbers. He’s prepared,” says Josh Groves, administrative assistant to Rep. George Hochbreuckner (D-NY), who first lost with Secrest in an ’84 challenge before winning election to Congress in 1986 with Secrest as his pollster. “His information is applicable to the way we want to conduct the campaign. His interpretive abilities are excellent. He brings raw data alive. He’s available when we need to speak to him about something. Whether it’s 10 o’clock at night or seven in the morning, his time is our time and our time is his time.”
Says Dennis King, administrative assistant to Rep. Lane Evans (D-IL), “Some pollsters try to become a Svengali. Alan’s a team player. Instead of trying to make the candidate fit his expectations of what the candidate should be, he listens. Some pollsters give you the feeling that if only the candidate and his campaign will get out of the way, the pollster can win. Alan is definitely not one of those. He really listens to what the candidate and campaign have to say.”
“It’s important that the candidate and the campaign manager have a good rapport and develop a certain trust,” says Bill Johnstone, Sen. Wyche Fowler’s (D-GA) administrative assistant. “IT was important to us that we have a group of consultants that work well with each other. The one thing in particular with Alan that we liked was his candor and his ability to give bad news as well as good. He’s never shied away from expressing his opinion on the bad news,” he adds with a laugh.
One congressional campaign CSA was working this year in Nebraska’s Third District threatened bad news –– for Secrest.
When the Teamsters union maxed out in contributions to his client, former party chairman Scott Sidwell, they allegedly attempted to launder payment for $5,000 CSA poll through the Lupe County Democratic party, headed by Sidwell committee chairman Morgan Berwell. While Berwell shared the results of the five-minute poll with Sidwell and Ben Nelson, a gubernational candidate and CSA client, they were not released right away to Sidwell’s primary opponents.
“This has nothing to do with Cooper & Secrest,” says Secrest.
“Alan might not have known the entire program, give that he was also doing Nelson. He might have thought it appropriate,” says Rick Ridder, general consultant to the eventual primary winner, Sandy Scofield.
“Even if it’s not a legal no-no –– and that’s a little unclear –– it’s perceptionally stupid because it looks like [Sidwell] was trying to evade the law,” Ridder adds.
The poll financing was bothersome to Scofield, but what really disturbed her camp, says Ridder, was another Secrest Letter, this one circa 1990. Under his firm’s letterhead, Secrest sent a memo to national PACs stating that Scofield flip-flops on abortion. When the Women’s Campaign Fund, EMILY’s List, and the DCCC asked Secrest to back up his statements, he didn’t, and instead rewrote the letter immediately.
“To a large extent,” says Ridder, “Alan was fed lousy data from the [Sidwell] campaign, and he acted accordingly. The Sidwell camp said a lot of bullshit and put CSA in a bad spot. But, then again, Alan might have asked more questions and one more follow-up.
“This,” Ridder continues in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I tone of voice, “is a grey area for all pollsters in serving their clients. Alan’s caught in a very broad textural question as to the role of the pollster in a campaign. He may have given advice that was ignored, or he may have been given bad information.”
Either of those scenarios would be the least surprising to David Cooper, Secrest’s former partner.
“Whatever anyone has to say [about Secret’s integrity] is innuendo,” says Cooper, who is studying the Torah in Jerusalem. “In this business of integrity, honesty, and reliability are the most important things with your pollster. Alan’s never going to manipulate or falsify or make it look better or worse. He’s going to tell it like it is. He’s one of the most honest guys I know. He’s a very rare person in Washington. He can be counted on.”
Yet another anonymous pollster offers a less fraternal but, even Secrest agrees, more accurate assessment of this tempest’s role in the political teapot. “I think hardly any of us have come to an honest sense of what the balance is between political allegiance and being in business. Alan has. He’s in business. In some ways he’s playing a more honest game than the rest of us. But he’s also not playing the same game as the rest of us.”
Editor’s Note (July 1990): Sometimes you stir the pot and the brew thickens, other times it becomes crystal clear. As this article went to press, Alan Secrest called Rahm Emanuel to “bury the hatchet,” at the urging of DCCC Political Director Doug Sosnik. “I pushed Alan to make the call,” says Sosnik. “He had some making up to do.”
“I thought it was time to put this behind us,” says Secrest.
Emanuel agrees. “He called me. We put our stuff behind us,” he says.